Update (08/13): A perspective about John’s life and career, authored by IRM Director Ken Zaret and Peter Donovan (UC Irvine), was recently published in Science magazine. The piece can be found on the publication’s website.
On May 27, our colleague and former IRM Director John Gearhart passed away following a long battle with gastric cancer. John was an extremely talented and adventurous scientist, a relentless defender of embryonic stem cell research for the public, and a trusted mentor to the IRM community.
John is best known for leading the research team that first identified and isolated human pluripotent stem cells from primordial germ cells during his time as a Professor at Johns Hopkins. These studies—together with James Thomson’s contemporaneous derivation of pluripotent stem cells from human blastocysts— revolutionized and literally defined what our field could do. Soon after, he became Director of the recently formed IRM, succeeding our co-founders Jon Epstein and Ralph Brinster. I was fortunate to serve as co-Director with John for 5 years and got to know him well.
John’s remarkable scientific achievements were only the beginning of his support for our field. He personally made more than 160 trips to Washington, D.C. to advocate for stem cell research funding. I recall his stories of Congressmen railing against him in public and then approaching him in the hallway afterwards, asking if stem cells could help them or someone in their family. John also never shied away from opportunities to share the importance of stem cell research in the popular press. Though these activities were occasionally risky—John received death threats and needed police protection in the early days of this work—he persevered due to his unwavering confidence in the potential of stem cells.
With one eye always on the future, John strongly promoted efforts to expand the reach of stem cells and regenerative medicine. He was instrumental in founding the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), which now serves many thousands of stem cell scientists from around the world. John also ensured that outreach was a core part of the IRM’s mission and championed initiatives to share our science with the public.
We will all miss John Gearhart dearly.
Director, Institute for Regenerative Medicine